Leonard Pitts Jr.: He was the only one we had – Post Bulletin
These days we have Denzel Washington.
We have Viola Davis, Kevin Hart and Jamie Foxx. We have Octavia Spencer, Regina King and Samuel L. Jackson. We have Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Taraji P. Henson, Michael B. Jordan, Mahershala Ali, Tiffany Haddish and Will Smith. In other words, we have an abundance of genuine mainstream black movie stars.
But once upon a time, we – African Americans – only had one. His name was Sidney Poitier and he died last week at the age of 94.
Praises have been raining on his name ever since, and rightly so. As an actor, Poitier was known for an economy of expression and movement that could be shattered at any moment by sudden volcanic intensity. As a social activist, he was courageous, supporting the civil rights movement and using his art to illuminate and explore provocative racial themes. And he was a trailblazer: the first African American to be voted the nation’s top box office attraction, the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar, which he won for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963.
But to fully appreciate what Sidney Poitier meant – to us, at least – you have to understand what it was like when he was the only one. You must know why Jet magazine felt it necessary to publish a page listing the “negro” artists who would appear on television that week. You have to remember how much knowing that the Temptations or the Supremes were going to be on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was enough to alert all your friends. You have to understand why Martin Luther King said, “You can’t,” when Nichelle Nichols told him she was quitting her role as Uhura in “Star Trek.”
In other words, you must have some idea of what it was like to be black in mainstream American culture. That is to say, largely invisible.
From the porters carrying Jimmy Stewart’s bags in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ to the maid Mae West orders to ‘Peel me a raisin’ in ‘I’m No Angel’, film noir characters were nearly always menial and incidental, orbiting the main action like satellites until it’s time to serve coffee or provide comic relief.
In a society that derives much of its sense of the world and of itself from what it sees on screen, to be invisible there – or to be seen only in a degrading caricature – is, in a very real meaning, not to exist. Culturally speaking, it’s a kind of death.
During his most impactful years – from the late 1950s to the 1960s – Poitier demanded that the film world see black people. During those years, the Miami-born Bahamian actor was a doctor, teacher and soldier, cop, convict and hearty handyman. In other words, he embodied blackness in all its shades of humanity and did so with an unyielding insistence on his own – and therefore ours – dignity and worth.
As we say these days, he represented.
It’s not an easy thing to represent. Indeed, it is an unfair, though often necessary, burden. To represent a people – to be their avatar in unwelcoming places – is to give up some of your own prerogatives as an individual, your ability to act according to your own tastes and moods without needing to calculate whether this will have a negative impact on millions of people whose hopes are embodied in you.
Yet Sidney Poitier did just that. Indeed, he carried on him the needs and aspirations of an entire people with a singular grace and class. For so many years he was the only one we had.
In the end, he was also the only one we would need.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers can contact him by email at [email protected]
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